Review: Kaleidoscope Song by Fox Benwell

Kaleidoscope Song

Genre: YA contemporary

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication date: September 19, 2017

kaleidoscope songSouth Africa is loud. Listen. Do you hear the song and dance of it? The chorus of Khayelitsha life? Every voice is different, its pitch and tone and intonation as distinct as the words we choose and how we wrap our mouths around them. But everybody has a voice, and everybody sings…

Fifteen year old Neo loves music, it punctuates her life and shapes the way she views the world. A life in radio is all she’s ever wanted.
When Umzi Radio broadcasts live in a nearby bar Neo can’t resist. She sneaks out to see them, and she falls in love, with music, and the night, but also with a girl: Tale has a voice like coffee poured into a bright steel mug, and she commands the stage.

It isn’t normal. Isn’t right. Neo knows that she’s supposed to go to school and get a real job and find a nice young boy to settle down with. It’s written everywhere – in childhood games, and playground questions, in the textbooks, in her parents’ faces. But Tale and music are underneath her skin, and try as she might, she can’t stop thinking about them.

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Synopsis:

brown girl dreaming.jpgJacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir-in-verse by Jacqueline Woodson, was released in 2014 and showered with awards including a Newbery Honor and National Book Award. So naturally, I wanted to read this as a part of exploring middle grade and for reading more books by and about African-Americans this year.

Woodson covers her early childhood and adolescence in the book, and in that short span of time she has plenty of history and perspective to cover. She’s a black girl born during the Civil Rights movement to a Southern mother but a proud Northern father who divorce when she is a baby. She’s raised in the South with her grandparents, but then her mother leaves for New York, and she and her brother and sister are raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses by their grandmother. When her mother comes back to take them to move to New York (Brooklyn), they continue the practice, and they experience the contrasts between the North and the South through constant visits. Later, she becomes very aware of the 1970s movements that surround her, particularly feminism. Plus, there are quite a few references to the music of the times, which I enjoyed.

As much of the book covers a time when Woodson was quite young and naturally doesn’t remember everything, the verse form allows her to imagine her family at moments she would not be able to see or remember. It’s a creative blend of memoir, hope, and commentary. I also loved to see Jacqueline’s growing love for writing and poetry. Her older sister was the quick-learning, book-smart one, so she felt like she disappointed teachers, but she begins to find her own voice and it’s lovely.

I sometimes struggle with free-verse book form–I think I like single poems more, and particularly poetry that experiments with form, sound, rhythm, rhyme. I like longer “single” poems, and in a lot of popular collections they are quite short and structurally simple. (And just to clarify, I’m not saying those collections aren’t poetry. I just don’t enjoy them or get as much out of them.) But Woodson here has some longer lines and variations in her poems, and the style works very well for that blend of what she remembers and what she imagines.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a great book for the upper elementary and above, especially if you’re interested in writing, poetry, African-American history and perspectives, Jehovah’s Witnesses experiences, or are just a fan of Jacqueline Woodson in general. I’m interested in reading her latest, Another Brooklyn, although that one is a fictional novel for adults. As some of her life in Brooklyn in the ’70s is chronicled in Brown Girl Dreaming, it will be interesting to see how her life influenced that story.

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Genre: middle grade, surrealism/absurdism(?)

Release Date: January 31, 2017

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic

marvin gardens.jpgObe Devlin has problems. His family’s farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn’t like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his house, in the last wild patch left, picking up litter and looking for animal tracks.

One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog, or maybe a small boar. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags… No one has ever seen a creature like this before, because there’s never been a creature like this before. The animal–Marvin Gardens–soon becomes Obe’s best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.

In her most personal novel yet, Printz Honor Award winner Amy Sarig King tells the story of a friendship that could actually save the world.

Amy Sarig King is better known as A.S. King, one of my favorite YA authors. This is her middle grade debut, so naturally I was doubly intrigued to not only read it but to see how she would write for a different audience. I admit it took me a bit to get into, and like all her books it’s not going to appeal to the mainstream, but it definitely won me over by the end.

Me and Marvin Gardens is your boy-and-a-dog story except the “dog” in question is a completely unknown and strange but friendly creature who eats plastic and poops brightly-colored toxic waste. Yes, you read that right. This is a book about environmentalism, as Obe picks trash out of the creek, ponders pollution facts his cool science teacher writes on the board every day, and has watched his family’s land be turned into a housing development. The changing of the Earth with time was distilled to a microcosm perfectly in this setting. It also has a lot to explore about toxic masculinity, as Obe’s father reminds him frequently that boys don’t cry, and Obe’s former friend has turned against him to fit into the meaner crowd of boys who make a list of girls to kiss without their consent (and the book has a GREAT discussion on this with Obe, his sister, and their parents).

So, yes, this doesn’t have the pacing of your usual middle grade. Obe’s a very internal character and the conflict with Marvin Gardens (the nickname for the creature) and the neighborhood builds slowly. And yet, King has unquestionably tailored her style to suit middle grade. There’s still the surrealism/abusrdism (I don’t know what to call it because unlike some of her others this isn’t magical realism, as Marvin is definitely not treated as a normal thing in the world), but it’s much more linear than her other narratives. Obe occasionally reflects on what it was like 100 years ago when his family began to lose the land, preserving King’s narrative style of having excerpts in different styles from the main narrative–but again, it’s more approachable.

Another delightful aspect of Me and Marvin Gardens is the friendship. Obe grows closer with his friend and bus seat-mate, Annie, as she lets him in one what’s been going on, defends her against his ex-friend’s nonconsensual kiss, and brings her to his creek for her to collect rocks (she wants to be a geologist) and, eventually, to meet Marvin. They get teased a little bit, but their bond remains platonic, which is refreshing. (YA does tend to pair characters more than middle grade, but often MG will feature budding relationships.)

I also really loved the ending, which isn’t a surprise if you know me. I don’t want to spoil it, but it does involve a positive view of teaching as a profession!

As always, I’m looking forward to what A.S. King comes up with next.

Review: Sticks & Stones by Abby Cooper

Middle Grade Reads

Sticks & Stones by Abby Cooper

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Publication date: July 12, 2016

Genres/topics: Middle grade contemporary (magical realism?)

Print
This image does not capture how bright and spunky the cover is.

A feel-good middle grade debut with just a hint of magic about a girl who has a rare disorder that makes the words other people say about her appear on her body.

Ever since she was a baby, the words people use to describe Elyse have instantly appeared on her arms and legs. At first it was just “cute” and “adorable,” but as she’s gotten older and kids have gotten meaner, words like “loser” and “pathetic” appear, and those words bubble up and itch. And then there are words like “interesting,” which she’s not really sure how to feel about. Now, at age twelve, she’s starting middle school, and just when her friends who used to accept and protect her are drifting away, she receives an anonymous note saying “I know who you are, and I know what you’re dealing with. I want to help.” As Elyse works to solve the mystery of who is sending her these notes, she also finds new ways to accept who she is and to become her best self.

Sticks & Stones was one of my most anticipated books of the year, as I had discovered it when looking for new middle grade releases that interested me so I could continue exploring the market that I’m planning on writing in. And that plot summary won me over. Sixth grade and self-esteem? Deal me in.

The novel is more of a contemporary than anything else, but part of me wants to also call it magical realism. CAV, the disease Elyse has that causes words to appear on her arms and legs if someone calls her them–or, as she discovers, if she calls herself them–is, of course, fictional. But it’s so intrinsic to the message and characterization of the story that it feels almost like an extended, magical metaphor. The good words soothe, the bad words itch. Additionally, there is a mystery aspect that drives the story forward, which is bound to keep young readers flipping the pages.

Something that stands out about Sticks & Stones is Elyse’s first-person narrative voice. I admit that I have a complicated relationship to a voice that’s trying to be “current,” because it can be engaging, but often I worry if it can become easily dated, alienate some readers, or hinder the clarity of some descriptions. However, I’m no longer the targeted age group, nor do I work with them, so I don’t think I can really make a judgement here, and I can say that the story was still affecting. I also liked how Cooper doesn’t shy away from the realities of kids these age: they do “go out,” they do kiss, they do have Internet profiles, etc. And friendships do change.

One part of the plot I did figure out early on when the clue was dropped, but the way Elyse interpreted the clue was also understandable due to her own biases and views, and I did not see and was rather pleased by the big reveal. Also because of Elyse’s perspective, I felt that the characters lacked some depth. However, by the end, Elyse is able to see the different dimensions of these peoples and part of the conclusion is that she learns to see these complexities, which I do appreciate. There’s also a feminist message attached to the end as Elyse learns she doesn’t need a guy to make her feel good about herself and she can do that on her own, which is important considering how the media is over-saturated “happily ever after” love stories.

Overall, Sticks & Stones is certainly an engaging read with important messages for girls (especially) in middle school or heading to middle school soon.

Rewiew: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Publication Date: March 3, 2015

Genre: Young adult, contemporary + magical realism

Winner of the 2016 Printz Award for Young Adult Literature

bone gap.jpgEveryone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?

Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.

As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

Bone Gap is a bit of a difficult book to review, and I don’t feel like a pro/con review does it much justice. It’s something very different, quite literary, and its own little experience. I liked it, but I’d much prefer to discuss it in broadstrokes than a standard review.

Bone Gap is a small town (and a real one) and home to a mystery: the disappearence of Polish immigrant Roza, who we later learn out has come to reside with teenager Finn and his older brother Sean from seemingly fleeing an unsafe situation. The three have quite complicated feelings toward each other. Despite the missing persons case, however, I’m not sure I would really call Bone Gap a mystery. The third-person perspective shifts around from Finn to Roza to even some of the secondary characters, filling in their backstories. As such, the story is much more about who these characters and how they relate to each other.

What it’s really about? The narratives/expectations that surround people (which all small towns and/or other communities are bound to come up with) and horrible consequences of mysogyny, basically. Roza has dealt with many men taking advantage of her because they think they’re entitled to it, leading to some dangerous situations. Meanwhile, Petey (who Finn begins to date in the book) has her share, too, albeit of a different kind because unlike Roza, she isn’t conventionally pretty. There was also a scene where Finn focuses on Petey’s pleasure, containing an act that I haven’t seen depicted in YA (or most of the media) at all. Not that I’m an expert, but it was refreshing to see that.

I’ve seen “magical realism” used the most when describing Bone Gap, and it does play a subtle role. The characters struggle with real issues, but their world is lightly laced with magic. Whispering corn fields, a horse, which is female and likes to be ridden at night, so it’s a “Night Mare,” and more. It gets weird, but it’s rather beautiful, adding a hopefulness to the story. (And I love weird.)

Bone Gap is marketed as YA, and it won a major YA literary award, but I feel that it’s more of a crossover. Finn and Petey’s story deals with teenage feelings and themes, yes, but Roza and Sean are adults and a large part of the story is about them (especially Roza). I really enjoyed the multiple perspectives, especially when publishing seems to want to fit everything int categories (now we just need more push for books about kids aged 12-14, right??).

I highly recommend Bone Gap if you’re interested in magical realism, feminism, and literary fiction.

Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Publisher: HarperTeen

Publication Date: April 21, 2015

Genre and topics: Young Adult contemporary, mental health

challenger deepCaden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence, to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

A captivating and powerful novel that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by one of today’s most admired writers for teens.

I was with my brother at the library, helping him find the rest of Neal Shusterman’s Skinjacker trilogy (he really enoyed them), when I spotted Challenger Deep and was immediately like “Oh yeah, I really want to read that!” So here we are.

If you’ve read some of my previous book reviews, you’ll be noticing a pattern: I tend to pick up middle grade and YA novels about mental health topics. It comes from looking for ways to articulate my own personal problems, as well as functioning as research for the novel I’m currently writing which deals with some of those themes. Challenger Deep also comes from a sincere personal place in Neal Shusterman, whose son Brendan has struggled with schizophrenia since his teenager years. Working closely with Brenadan, who supplied the drawings seen throughout, he tried to capture the experience of a schizophrenic boy’s “descent” to the depths of his illness and his recovery.

That personal connection is significant. Shusterman has certainly done his research, which is extremely important when writing outside your perspective, and he had many emotions driving him to write. The result was a rather literary book that even exceeded my initial expectations.

I say Challenger Deep is “rather literary” because there are various devices at play to illustrate Caden’s experience. Most notably is a paralell story aboard a pirate ship that Caden often feels he is on. The two realities seem separate at first, but it then becomes apparent that characters overlap, and the story on the ship points Caden to important revelations about himself and the people around him. This seemed more like a literary technique than a real experience of schizophrenia to me,  but I honestly don’t mind because it was satisfyingly crafted (once I understood the connection, I admit) and made some very important points. There were plenty of powerful moments about society’s perceptions of mental illness.

Meanwhile, Caden will shift from first person to second person sometimes, conveying in an unsettling way his disassociation. When he is in first person, the voice and word choice has its funny and clever moments–he’s a regular teenage boy, after all.

My overall impression of Challenger Deep is that it’s not a description, but an experience, and one that I found rather engrossing.

Review: George by Alex Gino

Middle Grade Reads

George by Alex Gino

Publisher: Scholastic

Publication Date: August 25, 2015

Genre: children’s/low middle grade, contemporary, LGBT

georgeBE WHO YOU ARE.

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

Anyone active in the middle grade and even YA community last year probably heard about George by Alex Gino, the story of a ten-year-old transgender girl written by a genderfluid author (#ownvoices), a major step forward for the industry. At the time, I didn’t want to splurge on a hardcover and so I waited, but recently I took advantage of a Kindle deal (that is still active!), read a little bit of it, and couldn’t stop reading.

Designed for the younger end of middle grade, George is short (just under 200 pages) and has a fairly simple plot (George wants to play Charlotte in a school play of Charlotte’s Web to show everyone she’s a girl). The story is written in third person limited, which is important because this means that she/her pronouns refer to George from the beginning. Pronouns are important to trans people, but I’ve noticed that many outsiders are not sure what pronouns to use and when. Gino uses female pronouns from the first page, before George begins going by Melissa and despite what she has “between her legs,” an important statement about identity subtley slipped in through the language used.

While the storyline is simple and George is sure of her identity, that doesn’t mean that George portrays a simplistic view of being trans. There are a lot of little touches and facets of everyday life that affects George, like the gendered terms used by others, bullying, and bathing. The book is overall positive and hopeful, but it’s clear that there are many struggles, too. It’s realistic without being gritty, perfect for the target audience–and anyone, for that matter, as there seem to be so many LGBT tragedies. I have no doubt it will offer hope to many and will hopefully be taught in the future by schools as a classic and important teaching moment. (I say “in the future” because I can just imagine the parent complaints if this were introduced in an elementary school today. **Sigh**)

And George isn’t just an important book–it’s also an incredibly well-written one.  Frankly, I’m utterly envious of Alex Gino’s eloquent and delightful turns of phrases. There’s a scene where George and her brother play Mario Kart, which could have been a bit dull, but it’s described in such n entertaining way. I also loved that George and Kelly found information on the Internet, because in this age, that’s what kids do.

Overall? This is a charming, hopeful, and well-written little story with an important message highlighting an important issue. In the age of Caitlyn Jenner and bathroom bills, we need to acknowledge that these topics and issues aren’t “mature content”–they affect kids too! And like all good diverse books, it provides a solace to young kids grappling with the topic (in this case, being trans) and alerts them that they are not alone, while others build empathy and a better understanding of those who are different.

george tagline

 

Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Publisher: Dial Books

Publication: Date: May 10, 2016

Genre: Young adult contemporary

highly illogical behaviorSixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn’t left the house in three years, which is fine by him.

Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she’s being realistic). But is ambition alone enough to get her in?

Enter Solomon.

Determined to “fix” Sol, Lisa steps into his world, along with her charming boyfriend, Clark, and soon the three form an unexpected bond. But, as Lisa learns more about Sol and he and Clark grow closer and closer, the walls they’ve built around themselves start to collapse and their friendships threaten to do the same.

I first heard about Highly Illogical Behavior in a piece that connected its upcoming release with John Corey Whaley’s personal experience with anxiety, and so I was inevitably interested in a YA story concerning mental health written with a personal perspective. It wasn’t among my most anticipated titles, though, and I ended up picking it up from the library because I was interested in reviewing it because, honestly, the premise isn’t that great. The idea of “fixing” someone with a mental illness isn’t okay, but the back of the book seemed to suggest that this would be subverted, and I like myself some satire. But…well, days after finishing it, I’m still conflicted. In general, I just feel like this book wasn’t for me on multiple levels.

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Review: Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

Middle Grade Reads

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

Published: May 17, 2016 by Simon & Schuster

some kind of happinessTHINGS FINLEY HART DOESN’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT

• Her parents, who are having problems. (But they pretend like they’re not.)
• Being sent to her grandparents’ house for the summer.
• Never having met said grandparents.
• Her blue days—when life feels overwhelming, and it’s hard to keep her head up. (This happens a lot.)

Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real–and holds more mysteries than she’d ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones.

With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself.

Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.

December of last year, I found that blurb on Goodreads while looking through upcoming middle grade titles and I knew I needed to preorder this book. I’ve been dealing with discovering and tackling my own mental health over the past two years especially, and I found myself trying to capture that state of unease in my own writing. Also, the fact that Claire Legrand herself has had depression and anxiety since a young age (read her story here) suggested insight that might not be present from the outside. And I was not disappointed.

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